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January 16, 2004

Person A and Person B

Dear Friedrich --

A question for you (as well as anyone else who's moved to pitch in here, of course):

Imagine Person A and Person B. Person A goes to a Black Sabbath concert and reports afterwards that he had a "great" experience. (Is Black Sabbath still in existence, by the way?) Person B goes to a concert of Pollini playing Chopin (I don't much about classical music, but I do know that Pollini does Chopin well) and comes back afterwards to report that he too had a "great" experience.

Knowing nothing else about these two people, would you feel capable of saying that one of them had a "greater" experience than the other? I guess what the puzzle boils down to is: let's suppose we can agree that the music of Pollini/Chopin is greater than the music/theater of Black Sabbath. Even so, does it automatically follow that Person B's experience was therefore greater than Person A's?

I'm prone to say "No," and mostly because I'm prone to taking people at their word. (Seems like a basic gesture of respect to do so.) Since there's no better authority on the subject of Person A's experience than Person A himself, I accept his description of his experience. Likewise where Person B is concerned.

But other questions do claw at my brain a bit. I tend, for example, to feel that my own involvement in culture has made me a deeper person, and I often (not always) find that "greater" art moves me (reaches me, excites me, whatever) more "deeply" than less-great art. So I'm prone to think that Cultured-Me's "great" experiences are more substantial than the "great" experiences that Uncultured-Me had, say, 35 years ago.

But that's not comparing two different people, that's comparing two different Me's.

And, not to get too caught up in fancypants po-mo-ism, let's face it: people experience the same thing in many different ways. I've attended many plays, movies and concerts that I were thought were godawful, even while the people around me were obviously having a "great" experience. I couldn't question the fact: there they were, being deeply moved. And I've been to art-things that have deeply moved (and/or excited) me, but which other people in attendance were bored or at least untouched by. My excitement was genuine, but so was their boredom.

And, despite my (perhaps self-deluded) conviction that I'm a deeper person today than I once was thanks in part to my decades of cultural adventures, do I really feel that I can say that I'm a deeper person than the kids I grew up with who didn't leave town, who didn't devote themselves to the arts, and who still, as middle-aged creatures, have smalltown tastes?

No, I don't think I'd care to say that. I like and respect many of my hometown buddies too much, for one thing. For another, they've had their own lives, at least as rich as mine, and if they tell me they had a "great" experience at, say, a movie that I consider crap, why would I doubt them?

Yet I do also think that one of the reasons exposure to traditional culture is worthwhile is that it tends to promote the development of depth in people. (And I do think that one of the startling things about the new, all-pop-all-the-time, electronics-and-videogames young people is that ... they have no depth.) In other words, I guess I suspect that some people really are deeper than others. But what does that mean? That they're really deeper, or that they have easier access to depths we all share? And how to reconcile all this with the fact that I consider many of the non-arty small-town types I know to be deeper people than many of the arty, flakey egomaniacs I currently spend much of my time around?

So, I wind up wondering: what is the relationship between the greatness of a given work and the greatness of the experience a spectator/consumer/user has? Does any such relationship exist, necessarily, at all? Is it possible, or even semi-possible, to assert that greater works deliver greater experiences? By what measure and on whose authority? And to what extent does the answer depend on who's doing the experiencing?

Your thoughts here?



UPDATE: Fun thoughts and reflections from everyone in the comments on this posting. Aaron Haspel also took the bait and ran with it a good ways. His posting is here. I liked this Aaron posting here too; it's on a similar theme.

UPDATE UPDATE: George Hunka takes a swing at the topic here.

posted by Michael at January 16, 2004


I think we need to distinguish between what "great" means in differing contexts. We have different standards for what constitutes greatness--especially between the fine-arts and the popular-arts.

With that in mind I would probably claim that the two standards of greatness are incommensurable, so you can't say black sabbath is greater or lesser than chopin. This may sound like a cop-out. But if we're looking for objectivity we can make more specific statements: like Pollini plays the piano better than Ozzy Ozborne, for example. However, note claiming that the musical compositions are more sophisticated and complex is tantamount to saying that one is higher art than the other; in other words, it doesn't say anything about value. To have this sort of discussion one must establish a shared criteria; which is difficult to do. Compare, for example, who is a better songwriter: Fela Kuti or Bob Dylan? Both are pop, but this is still a difficult question. Of course, that's what critics are paid to do, and a great critic answers this question with insight, even we disagree.

Notice, how this question is similar to the problem of religious people being "happier" in general than atheists. Some more rabid atheists might say that religious people are less authentically happy because it stems from evasion and ignorance. Of course, we can take a more relative position, perhaps Heidegger's, and note that theism and atheism are just two alternative possibilities provided by society, one no better than the other. One can be happy in either and one can be authentic in either...

Posted by: nick kallen on January 16, 2004 04:30 PM

I hear two familiar M. Blowhard themes in this post: (1) low art can be just as rewarding as high art, and (2) "greatness" has many possible definitions (see your post about "Best of the Year" lists). I agree with Nick that the questions you pose can't really be addressed without some additional framework; and I have this niggling sense that the question you truly want answered is not the question posed. I hate to say it, but I think the conversation that ensues from this post will be all over the map unless you draw some boundaries.

Oh, and Black Sabbath no longer plays together, but Ozzy's still at it. Have you not seen "The Osbournes" on MTV? Low art at its funniest.

Posted by: Dente on January 16, 2004 04:42 PM

One traditional approach to this problem is that the listener who appreciates Chopin has the breadth to appreciate a much more complex work of art than the Black Sabbath listener. The Chopin fan therefore can appreciate and draw pleasure from both, something the Sabbath fan cannot. I'm not sure that addresses your actual point. (I can provide a footnote if you want.)

BTW -- Pollini is a very good if inconsistent Chopin interpreter. His Etudes recording from the 70s is simply great.

Posted by: JT on January 16, 2004 05:27 PM

Well, it's finally happened: I've run out of things to say. OK, so it happened long ago, but maybe never so flagrantly. But why let the blogging stop, eh?

Nick -- FWIW, I think what's fascinating me (if no one else) are the differences (and possible relationships) between the experience of greatness and the fact, if you will, of greatness. The experience is entirely personal, where the fact is (for my money, anyway) a kind of cultural consensus. (Along the lines, I guess of: "a lot of trustworthy people have found that this work tends to deliver great experiences," plus "no matter what you think, it's a work of status, importance and influence.") Yet there's a kind of flow back and forth between the personal experience and the cultural fact anyway. If enough people say out loud that they had a "great experience" thanks to some art-thing or other, there's a chance the culture more generally will start to consider that art-thing "great," I guess. But that raises other questions, namely: who? Zillions of people might announce that they've had "great" experiences at Billy Joel concerts, but whoever it is who decides what's great and what isn't apparently hasn't been listening -- or at least I haven't run across any "serious" people willing to consider the possiblity that Billy Joel is one of the greats. Where a much smaller group of people has announced that, say, Toni Morrison (pet peeve of mine) delivered a "great" experience and -- voila, she's now one of the greats. Interesting process to observe in any case. As for what's really great and what's not, I guess my not-very-interesting conclusion is along the lines of "time will tell and then perhaps change its mind."

Dente -- I think you're right, that as I set the problem up, no answer can be reached. You'd have to know the two people involved. Perhaps one is unavoidably shallow, so you'd have to take that into account in your final bookkeeping. Perhaps "Black Sabbath plus deep person" (unlikely as that may seem) trumps "Pollini/Chopin plus shallow person" (a combo that strikes me as perfectly plausible). Assuming that any of these things are measurable, of course. And it is all a bit foodie-ish. After all, on a hot summer afternoon, maybe an orange popsicle makes you say "Great!" Does that mean it's the greatest thing you've ever eaten? Well, perhaps -- but is that of any use to anyone else. Hmm. Well, perhaps (in the sense that it might open someone's mind to the pleasure of an orange popsicle on a summer afternoon). It might not mean that curricula ought to be changed -- but says who?

JT -- I like the traditional answer you give, though I'd be tempted to tweak it. As many people in the comments thread of the recent bookpeople/moviepeople posting wrote, learning how to enjoy more complex work often spoils the pleasure of more simple work (at least for some people, and for some period of time). So, for that reason and I guess others too, I wouldn't be surprised to encounter a Pollini/Chopin fan who couldn't enjoy Black Sabbath, capable though he is of "getting" the music. (Of course, there are all the other nonmusical elements to a Black Sabbath show that a training in Chopin might not be good preparation for ...)

To stand the question on its head for a moment: say a work has complexity and depth. Does that automatically mean it's any good? (And, as ever, says who?)

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 16, 2004 05:44 PM

I can see where you're going with the whole "incommensurability of experience" idea - it gets into the whole conundrum of "quality", and just what it is, anyway - but you omit one very important factor from your analysis:

Dude, Sabbath rules!

Da, da, da-da-da, dadadadadadada, da-da-da...

Posted by: jimbo on January 16, 2004 07:15 PM

When I was younger I never listened to music. I had a period where I listened to nothing for years at a time.
Eventually I got a computer, and especially with the advent of filesharing, started finding music I really enjoyed. This kicked off the stage where I listened to music for 18 hours a day.
I'm now attempting to learn how to play music. I've had to train myself to recognize sounds and instruments in a way I never had before. I'm still working at it. It makes me respect some people whose music I might not definitely care for outside of a technical respect, and also to bring into context the musical value of what I consider good.
Nevertheless, I still listen to things that may be simple musically (Note that I'm more of a lyrics person myself, so I'm not terribly concerned whether I'm listening to something with complex instrumentation if I enjoy the lyrics and singer). I also listen to some things I didn't before.

Posted by: . on January 16, 2004 07:19 PM


If it's striking that the difference between the private experience of greatness (subjective) and the public assesment of greatness (objective) exists at all, then I'd at least like to play DA and undermine the distinction.

Here are a couple claims:

1. "Ears" must be trained to appreciate any kind of art, whether it be fine or pop.
2. Further, the content of art arises in historical context. Whether the arts are 'autonomous' (the avant-garde) or 'sell-out' (corporate pop, for instance), they emerge with a swamp of cultural connections. Even something as abstract as music has cultural connections, and lots of criticism (e.g., Lester Bangs) focuses on this.
3. They are also in dialogue with the history of their own medium and genres. Examples: "quotes" in jazz-music; the very fact that genres exist and prototypical examples abound; and that certain bands are considered derivitive; the idea of neo-this, post-that, etc.

So, as an example: I can only "like" punk-rock in certain periods of time, with certain cultural assumptions.

Therefore, the distinction between cultural consensus and the private experience of greatness is dubious. Something shared between groups of people makes possible certain art-experiences. It also makes possible the assessment of greatness because we have certain cultural aparatuses (e.g., the critical elite; record sales) that operate within these cultural spheres to objectively determine what is great/canonical.

I'll go further and claim that you can't compare the canon (measure) of one sphere (high-art, pop-culture) to another, as long as you have already implicitly or explicitly made the distinction between the two sphere.

But that's not to say that another cultural aparatus wont emerge (and it has to some extent), where similar standards are applied to both pop-culture and high-culture, wherein such things are commensurable. This is the realm of the hipster.

And as for depth and complexity (and ambiguity) that makes a work good in the fine-arts but not the pop-art world, necessarily. I think in answering this question it's best to look at popular and critical darlings like Radiohead or Neutral Milk Hotel -- these are supposed to be all of the above and yet poppy, listenable.

It's also worth considering
1. how the OBSCURITY of certain artists contributes to their aura of greatness and so forth. How do you deal with the Radiohead apostates created because of the band's popular success? How do you deal with the fact that a lot of respected "underground" artists are no more sophisticated or interesting that more popular ones?
2. and it also worth considering how the EXCLUSIVITY of art contributes to that aura of greatness. Acquired tastes (wine), experimental film, and lots of contemporary art (that which still elicits horrified the reaction 'THIS is art?') are good examples.

Posted by: nick kallen on January 16, 2004 07:56 PM

I'm still not quite sure what the question was.

Is the question: do broad cultural experiences make you deeper?

First of all, I'd say only if you have the capacity for depth, which I don't think everybody on the planet has.

What I think it might do is simply open you up to the possibility of meaning in more experiences, and therefore increase the likelihood that you will have more meaningful experiences in total, which might make you more insightful into yourself and others, which might make you deeper. How's that for run-on?

I don't think someone who ONLY listens to classical music is by any means "deeper" than someone who ONLY listens to rock. I don't think someone who ONLY eats at French restaurants is deeper than someone who ONLY eats at McDonald's. Both have limited experience. My parents on family vacations always wanted to make sure we saw important landmarks, or wealthy mansions, or whatever, partly because they said then when this is discussed you won't be intimidated: you will know what people are talking about and will simply have your own opinion. It will be an experience you have had which allows other experiences to be put in perspective.

One more thing: holy shit, Black Sabbath? I think you are sorta giving away your birth year THERE!!! :)

Posted by: annette on January 16, 2004 08:05 PM

I contend that as asked, there is no inherent relationship between the greatness of a work (to the extent that can be defined) and the greatness of the experience. Any experience is far too tied up with the (metaphorical) vocabulary of the observer. As a minor example, a connoisseur of Taiko drumming might find nothing interesting in a Bach fugue, because it lacks energy, or might find it devastating, because of its interesting mathematical structure.

I look back at some of the literature (broadly construed) and music that I have found most affecting and find that there is little correlation between my response on first experiencing it and my response now. Some is still deeply moving; others seem trite and uninteresting.

I occasionally have to remind myself that nearly every cliche was once a brilliant turn of phrase. The brilliance still shows through the first time you see it, even if it's not the brilliance of the author/artist you are experiencing. Even if it's just "new to me" rather than "new to the world", it can still be a deeply memorable (even formative) experience.

But perhaps I am construing greatness of experience differently than others.

ps. The example you use is one of experiences so different that there is almost no way to competently compare them. Rock concerts, in my experience (which does include Sabbath), are far more interactive than classical concerts (though my experience does not include live performances of Chopin.) Attending a Black Sabbath concert is more like attending a hockey game than a classical concert. It's apples and bowling balls.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 16, 2004 08:13 PM

Case-maker that I am, I've answered all of these questions here.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on January 16, 2004 08:57 PM

One other point. When you write, "Since there's no better authority on the subject of Person A's experience than Person A himself, I accept his description of his experience," it's not a description you're accepting at all, but an evaluation. If you got an actual description of the concerts from A and B, then you might get somewhere.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on January 16, 2004 09:10 PM

Jimbo -- I'm sure you're right, that I should have taken the sheer ruling-ness of Sabbath into account. On the other hand, I had no idea, never having actually listened to Sabbath. But Sabbath does rule, eh? Hey, I try to learn. Someday soon I'm going to grow my hair long, dye it blonde, start wearing leotards, and really give the fans a scare.

"." -- Another good point: how does actually doing an art affect you as a person? In my own experience, I always found that doing some creative work (writing, drawing, acting, a little music a hundred years ago) -- however inept and talent-free I might be -- seemed to enrich my life. Maybe by deepening my experience somehow. Maybe, in the case of the non-writing arts, simply by giving me a chance to spend time outside my verbal brain. On the other hand, many creative people I've met are shallow people (and worse) hoping to be found deep. So I'm not sure I've got a generalization in me about this. What are you finding? Is your experience of music, or of life, changing now that you're making some yourself?

Nick -- I confess you've left me in the dust a bit here. I'm taking you to say something like "we all live in a great big web of meanings and references, so there's no way to separate public from private experience." Am I far off? If I am, would you mind slowing down and giving it another try for my sake? If I'm on course, I'll go with you about halfway and then ask how, if "Portrait of a Lady" is (in a public sense) a great novel, it's possible that I didn't have (privately) a great experience reading it? Because I didn't. (Deep character flaw, I'm sure.) But I suspect I'm misunderstanding you, and apologies for that.

Annette -- What's really on my mind -- and why didn't I just announce it upfront, eh? -- are people of the sort who'd say that you haven't really had a great experience unless you've blah blah -- seen Olivier in "Hamlet," read Goethe in the original, read that other translation of "Tale of Genji"... These people have always amazed me: the chutzpah! They may (or may not, let's face it) know a little something about "greatness" in the public sense. But what do they know (what can anyone know?) about anybody else's private experience, let alone anyone else's "great" art-and-entertainment experiences, which tend to be very private matters? Seems to me that we have to trust people's reports of their own subjective experience, at least until we've been given very good reason to question their accounts. Take, for instance (forgive my pedantry, I'm sorting this out for myself), kids. Or, OK, teens and "Titanic," for instance. I thought it was a pretty dumb movie, partly because I've seen dozens like it and aside from the scale of it, and Kate's breasts, it was just a routine, especially long romantic disaster picture. But for youngsters, especially girls and young women, it seemed to be a revelation. They cried, they went back to it several times, they raved ... Part of me thinks that's pretty silly and wants to give 'em a shake and sit 'em down and show 'em some truly great movies. I mean: what a pity they don't know what true movie greatness is. But another part of me looks at them and thinks, well, they did have a great experience. They give every indication of having had one, whatever my judgment of the movie is. "Star Wars" might be an even better example. Crummy movie as far as I was concerned, but millions of people had a "great" experience watching it. I don't know what to do faced by such a thing besides shut up and try to learn a bit about what they loved, and what kind of great experience it was they had. What went into it, how it worked, what they loved and couldn't get enough of, etc. Perhaps the same people wouldn't have a great experience watching "Rules of the Game," great though it is. And am I having a greater experience watching "Rules of the Game" than they are watching "Star Wars"? Anyway, I'm thunderstruck by the arrogance of people who'd look at these fans and tell them, "No, you didn't have a great experience because you don't know what a really great work is. A great experience without a truly great work simply isn't truly great." I don't know why I'm feeling irked by such snobs just now, but that was what I was feeling a need to sound off about today. How do you react to such people? My reaction to them tends to be an instant, "Well, fuck you, buddy."

Doug -- You make another great point: how tastes change over time. What I was hot for 20 years ago isn't much like what I'm hot for in 2004. Here's another: enjoyment levels (and thus experiences of greatness) are also a function of mood. I've had the funny experience of seeing a play or a movie, disliking it, being told I was nuts, and then going back for a re-view -- and loving it. I'd been in the wrong mood, or maybe I'd been primed to expect or look for the wrong thing. In any case, its greatness had slipped by me, and I hadn't had a great experience. Then I went back and had a great experience -- or an experience of greatness? Or maybe both. I take all this to imply that the (romantic) notion that "greatness will out" is all wet. Some hero-worshippers seem to think that blazing talent will find fruition come hell or high water. In my experience, that isn't true. A zillion things need to fall in place, the moon needs to be in the right phase, etc etc, for "greatness," whatever it is, to happen. Which isn't to undervalue the role of talent, determination, persistence, etc., of course. I like your comparison of rock concerts to hockey games, by the way; heavy metal (which I know only through about five minutes of accidental MTV viewing) always reminded me of pro wrestling -- a live-action, scripted cartoon. And potentially sorta brilliant as such. As for comparison: the pleasure of eating an apple may be very different than the pleasure of bowling, but they're still discussable, no?

Hey, here's a study (by an academic, sigh) of heavy metal that I hear good things about. Not a personal endorsement, just passing along a recommendation.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 16, 2004 09:32 PM

So what you are saying is that when I go out to the garage to get my hubby for dinner and find him listening to a CD of Johnny Cash singing (badly) Neil Diamonds's "Solitary Man" I should keep my thoughts on his taste in music to myself and not make my normal "hey redneck, come get yer possum meat while it's hot" comments?

Posted by: Deb on January 16, 2004 11:08 PM

Hmmm, that one's gonna take some real thought. As well as, to be on the safe side, a consultation with The Wife ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 16, 2004 11:39 PM

The academic in question is musicologist Robert Walser, who happens to be a terrific writer with a brilliant mind, and who has also been a longstanding member of the community his book is about. It's a great read even for those like myself who aren't necessarily fans of the music.

Posted by: Mark Dellelo on January 16, 2004 11:48 PM

The problem I have with the two examples choosen here, is that they are incomparable in more than one way.

The last time I went to a rock concert, I was not so much listening to music, but flooded with it. The music was so loud my internal organs reacted directly to the boom. I was standing on my feet surrounded by a dancing crowd of people my age. It was above all a physical experience; call it a rush.

The last time I went to a classical concert, I was sitting in comfortable even air conditioned chair, surrounded mostly by grey haired people. Some of them were coughing. A lot. I had to concentrate real hard on the music played on the podium, to ignore their existence.

Based on these two examples I would say the rock concert was thought numbing fun, whereas the classical concert was work. This are two different things.

Posted by: ijsbrand on January 17, 2004 03:11 AM

Got it. I never know why people think they can make broad and let's face it, somewhat arrogant announcements, which are general and taste-driven. I think we all do, though. I have that at least private "skin crawling" experience when someone says they "love" People Magazine or "The Bachelor" or "Something's Gotta Give." I don't say you must have seen Olivier or you don't know greatness, but I do have this immediate "what's wrong with you, there's nothing soul-enriching about 'The Bachelor", it's gross!" reaction. Like yours about "Titanic." And then the next reaction: let's try something a little more soul nutritious and then see if you still like cotton candy.

But...when I'M the one liking the 'cotton candy'---almanacs, apparently---I don't really care if someone is lecturing me on how I'm wasting my brain. I think, "I enjoy it, I'm not hurting anyone, what's it to you?"

I think for me the well-ARE-you-hurting-someone? question is an important one to me. One of the reasons my skin crawls on the examples I gave is I wonder: what are young peoople learning about values, and identity, and gender relations, from these things? Are we sure no harm is being done?

But, what if people who think Olivier is "great" honestly believe some "harm" is being done by people thinking Leo is "great" and not having the right context to compare him to? What if you think "harm" is being done to the arts or movies by people thinking "Titanic" is "great" who have never really seen something else?

Posted by: annette on January 17, 2004 04:19 AM

Mark -- Good to see you popping in! And glad to hear you endorsing the heavy metal book. It doesn't get too academic? [Mark, by the way, is a firstclass writer about music and movies himself...]

IJSbrand -- You're probably right that the two experiences are so different as to be incomparable. I hope it's OK with you, though, that I enjoyed your very vivid comparison of them. Nicely put!

Annette -- That's it in a nutshell, isn't it? You've caught what it's like to flicker back and forth and in and around and among: the inner experience, the moments of amazement and indignation and then forgiveness, the "who's getting hurt by this" element. I mean, that's a big part of the "paying a little attention to culture" thing, isn't it? That's what it's like: not a relentless plodding towards something (although maybe a bit of it), or an endless striving towards (sigh) greatness (although maybe a bit of that too), but all these up and down, in and out, there and back moments. Thanks for evoking that so well.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 17, 2004 11:44 AM

Now Deb, don't you be dissin' the Man in Black. It's not allowed--since his demise, he's become the darling of the blogosphere. You'll have to wait until next year.

Or was it Neil Diamond you were dissin'?

Posted by: Will Duquette on January 17, 2004 11:47 AM

Michael - First no need for apologies as you're more than polite and I could very well be mistaken. I think you follow my thesis broadly; In a nutshell I am saying that our subjective experience is so affected by external factors that it doesn't even make sense to talk about the private experience of greatness. Consider Titanic as an example; here's a few reasons why teenage girls like it so much: (1) advertisements, (2) familiarity with the conventions of melodramatic film, (3) Leo DiC is a sex symbol, (4) a deliberate "chickness" to the story. Without (2) for example, the movie would be incomprehensible, no private experience but confusion. It's worth noting that Titanic is globally the most successful film of all time; this is only after--what--how many decades of traditional hollywood melodrama training people how appreciate movies. For (3) we can easily imagine a culture where such "pretty boys" are not sex symbols. For (4), I don't think there's anything peculiar about women genetically that make them prone to liking melodrama but by and large they grow up watching soap operas (the OC for example) and are trained to appreciate a certain kind of sentimentality.

To repeat my punk rock example, I doubt many people who are "conservative" can enjoy such a concert, because a concert is a social experience. There's a vibration, there's energy, that you just may not be able to take a part of. That energy enables the music, and is what makes a concert great. Lighters during sappy songs, singing along, mosh-pits, pot smoking, violence, debauchery, these things make a great punk concert. That's what people enjoy. If you are conservative it's just not for you.

I think reading books is kind-of like that; an education, a certain temperament, a certain social aparatus (a book club, the coffee house, intellectual friends) makes the greatness of a book accesible.

You ask: how was it that I didn't like Henry James if obviously I've been indoctrinated into the "serious" school of reading which allows me to see the greatness of such authors? Let me be evasive: what didn't you like? Here are three posibilities but please correct me: (1) Were you bored? (2) Did you find the characters unbelievable? (3) Was it too sentimental?

If it were (2), let me ask: what are your standards for believability and where do they come from? If (3)--what do you have against sentimentality? How do you determine what level of sentimentality (because there's always some) is acceptible and what experiences in your past does this derive from? If (1), have you ever considered something "great" despite being bored?

I know from personal experience that some of my favorite things are boring. Tale of Genji, is often boring, not to mention confusing, despite having some of the most fascinating "flings" put to paper. I loved it. Two personal favorite filmmakers--Hou Hsiao Hsien and Bela Tarr make movies that can be excrutiating; that is, excrutiatingly beautiful: Tarr's Satan's Tango is 7 hours long. I think these are GREAT filmmakers with GREAT films; but I can easily appreciate that a lot of people would never consider a movie great if it is boring. We bring different cultural assumptions to the screen and to our evaluations. Nevertheless, Bela Tarr is objectively great IF you belong to the Cahiers du Cinema cabal.

Snobbery is altogether a separate issue... Personally I think it is a kind of conservatism; it's analogous to the religious personality intolerant of other viewpoints. But I don't think we should let that consideration suggest as was claimed above that those of us with refined taste can and should somehow appreciate a wider spectrum of stuff--e.g., both Black Sabbath and Chopin. As was also pointed out, usually refining our tastes dull's our appreciation of "simpler" pleasures. It's a lot of work to cultivate expertise in heavy metal and in classical music, so I wouldn't fault anyone for choosing only one while admitting that the other has merit but is not to one's taste.

I still would like someone to take up my offer to discuss how obscurity and inaccessibility in art (both bound up with snobbery) add to a work's greatness--because they do affect evaluation especially in elitist musical circles.

Posted by: nick kallen on January 17, 2004 01:37 PM

Not to be a little bitch, but I think the whole premise of this argument is deeply flawed. I quote:

'So, I wind up wondering: what is the relationship between the greatness of a given work and the greatness of the experience a spectator/consumer/user has?'

What is meant by the 'greatness' of a work is never defined. This is a problem given that many (not all) commonly held definitions of greatness include the capacity to move (i.e. provide a 'great' experience) and/or to appeal to some sort of universal shared experience. By these definitions, a great work would necessarily provide a great experience, and the question becomes an ouorobouros. For it to have any meaning, 'greatness' would have to have some other value than what's mentioned above. So, what is it?

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 17, 2004 02:43 PM

Gray's "Elegy" explores the topic about as well as has been done, but I'll add my farthing anyway.

There are four things here, not two. A & B have different widths and different depths, each of which should be considered separately. A greater width of experience allows a person to make finer distinctions among his experiences, and thus to rank greatness more precisely. A narrower range of experiences allows each experience to stand clear of the shadows cast by the others, and so, perhaps, to be more clearly great or otherwise.

But then we get to the nitty gritty. The initial communications of G-d to the child Samuel and to the man Moses were similar experiences. Both individuals were changed permanently and profoundly. Was the experience of the child less great, or of the man more great, because of the width of their previous experience? I doubt it.

I am certain that one individual, by virtue of his experience, can describe a great experience more vividly than another. I am equally certain that even an inarticulate clod is capable of having an experince of indescribable greatness.

Posted by: Jim Taylor on January 17, 2004 02:54 PM

Jim, all that sounds very nice, but where is the subtantiation? The crux of the issue that you raise (not necessarily the crux of the issue here) lies in the question, 'Was the experience of the child less great, or of the man more great, because of the width of their previous experience?' Your response to this is simply that you doubt it is so, and that you are certain that 'even an inarticulate clod is capable of having an experince of indescribable greatness'. That's a very uplifting unsupported claim, but it isn't an argument.

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 17, 2004 02:59 PM


I take all this to imply that the (romantic) notion that "greatness will out" is all wet. Some hero-worshippers seem to think that blazing talent will find fruition come hell or high water. In my experience, that isn't true. A zillion things need to fall in place, the moon needs to be in the right phase, etc etc, for "greatness," whatever it is, to happen.

After thinking about it for a bit, I am beginning to think that any correlation between greatness of experience and consensus greatness of the work is likely to be negative. Note that I don't mean this as a criticism of such works, the effect I'm trying to explain is a bit more hidden.

I think that most really great experiences tend to be internalized responses to pretty fundamental ideas/presentations. These are the same ideas that are so reused as to become cliches, stock characters, hackneyed plots, etc.

The first time you experience these staples of a genre in any halfway competent way, the experience can be pretty formative. I think the response of teenage girls to "Titanic" that you referred to above (or my response to "Star Wars", for that matter) is precisely an example of this effect. When you've seen these things enough times, you become inured to the effect and no longer understand (remember?) how important/brilliant they were the first time you saw them. (Note that I'm using a generic you, not saying anything about you, Michael, or any specific person, other than perhaps me.)

Now, works that rely upon overused ideas, no matter how brilliant the idea was when first used, are not commonly thought of as great works. But it is precisely these works that do the least to hide the ideas that they are stealing, and thus it is in these works that fundamental ideas are most accessible. I contend, therefore, that it is exactly these works that are most likely to provide a formative, memorable, and easily internalized response from an audience that lacks sophistication (teenage girls in the example above).

That said, I'm beginning to believe that much of the work thought to be great is attempting to recreate that sort of epiphanic experience for a more sophisticated/experienced/jaded audience. Since this audience is familiar with most of the common simple-but-brilliant insights, the usual result of such work builds upon, twists, or explicitly denies some part of the accepted canon, but this only works artistically for those that understand the canon to begin with.

An extended metaphor:

Newton's laws of motion were a work of brilliance, but if I were to go to a professor of physics and say, in appropriately stentorian tones of course, "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction", the professor would be unlikely to acclaim my brilliance. To a junior-high physics student, this might be a revelation -- a great experience, perhaps. On the other hand, Einstein's theory of special relativity is nearly entirely inaccessible to people without a fairly extensive and specialized knowledge base. To such an audience (say fairly bright high-school physics students), Newton's laws would have long been internalized and their brilliance assumed, but the revelation that there are changes in time flow, mass, and length, at speeds near c could make a similarly strong impression.

I guess my point is that the more familiarity you have with a given field, the more difficult it is to stumble upon elegance by surprise, and it is surprise revelation of elegance and fundamentality that provides greatness of experience.

As for comparison: the pleasure of eating an apple may be very different than the pleasure of bowling, but they're still discussable, no?

Far be it from me to suggest that you couldn't discuss any comparison you wish. 8-) I might be able to discuss/compare the commonalities between changing the starter on a '70 Chevelle and reading Chekov (hmmm...), but I'd have to work a bit to explain my choices. It looks as though ijsbrand communicated better what I was trying to say than I did, though. Perhaps if I'd used P.D.Q.Bach and Miles Davis as examples? Not a comparison that I'd make only in passing; I'd have some explaining to do. 8-)

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 17, 2004 05:51 PM

Nicholas: You're right. It's not an argument. I don't think there is, or can be an argument, if by argument you mean a logical process than can lead to the development of a scale of greatness, or even an appreciation of greatness as felt by another. Each of us is an island no one else can explore, let alone explain. As Doug points out, the thing that is great to the person I am at moment A is not great to the person I am at moment B. I am both person A and person B, and neither of us understands the other's understanding.

Posted by: Jim Taylor on January 17, 2004 06:32 PM

Jim, I'm actually in complete agreement with you there. The thing is, the logical conclusion to draw from that isn't, as you basically claimed earlier, that 'width of previous experience does not affect the greatness of new experiences'. Rather, it's 'we cannot tell if width of previous experience affects the greatness of new experiences'.

That is to say, going by the impossibly nebulous sense in which we're using the word 'greatness'. *sigh*

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 17, 2004 07:06 PM

I'm not dissin" the Man in Black. Well, not completely. I've certainly heard enough of his music. He has his moments of greatness. "Solitary Man," however, is not one of them.

Posted by: Deb on January 17, 2004 11:45 PM

A bit late to the conversation ... but just to heartily concur with the commenter to your first post who suggested that you look at Michael Dirda's work as editor/critic for the Washington Post - a sublime example of how to jump from highfaluting to popular and back again with style and chutzpah. For the highbrow, see¬Found=true. For the lowbrow, see . Dirda is equally adept at both kinds of reviewing - and witty to boot.

Posted by: Henry Farrell on January 17, 2004 11:46 PM

Henry, your first link doesn't seem to work.

Posted by: Nicholas Liu on January 18, 2004 09:57 AM

black sabbath or pollini playing chopin?

neither thanks but put 'em together and you just might have something

this discussion could now seque in to the recent tendency of bands like metallica and kiss to perform with symphony orchestras

Posted by: art pepper on January 19, 2004 06:12 AM

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